A golden voice recalled

I was 8 or 9 years old, living with my father on the outskirts of New Delhi. It was World War II, and he was serving in the Royal Air Force. All day, except weekends, he was at Air Headquarters. Outside, the temperature hovered around 110 degrees F.; too hot for me to go out into the street or play in the mango grove.

No one else was staying with us at the time, no children for me to play with. But there was the old wind-up gramophone. And my favorite records.

Nelson Eddy was far and away my favorite singer. I loved his rich baritone, the power and range of his voice. I'd been to see "Balalaika" with my father, and we had the songs from that film, as well as other ballads popularized by Eddy: "Trees," "Rose Marie," "The Hills of Home," "Dusty Road," " 'Neath the Southern Moon," "Great Day": "When you're down and out, Lift up your head and shout,/ It's going to be a great day!"

Victor Herbert, Sigmund Romber, Rudolf Friml, and Vincent Youmans were just a few of the famous composers and songwriters whose works benefited from Eddy's fresh, vigorous renderings.

And I loved those marching songs - he was especially good at them - "Stouthearted Men," "The Mounties," "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" .... I sang along with Eddy and I marched up and down the little verandah that looked out on the mango grove.

Sixty years later, I'm still singing them, as I take my evening stroll up the mountain path near my abode in the Himalayan foothills. I'm not much of a singer, though. If the birds fall silent, it's more out of shock than admiration.

It isn't often that you'll hear an Eddy recording today, although most of them (including his many radio shows) are preserved on tape. But back in the 1930s, he was the idol of the concert stage, and his transition to cinema brought him a huge following. He partnered with Jeanette MacDonald in eight musicals, sang with Rise Stevens in "The Chocolate Soldier," and with Metropolitan Opera star Dorothy Kirsten on his many radio shows.

As a youngster in his hometown of Providence, R.I., Eddy had taught himself opera by listening to phonograph records by Scotti, Werrenrath, and other great baritones of the day. He would sing along with the recording until he felt satisfied with the result.

After leaving school, he tried his hand as a reporter, working for two large Philadelphia papers. But he was fired for singing on the job. The great American baritone David Bispham heard about the "singing reporter," met Eddy, and was so impressed that he agreed to become his coach.

For a time, Eddy sang with the Philadelphia Civic Opera; then he went to Europe for a time, where he was offered a contract by the Dresden (Germany) Opera Company. "But I wanted to see America again," Eddy said. "I wanted to put myself in the hands of the American public, sink or swim."

In 1931 he made his New York operatic debut in "Wozzeck," and he went on to master some 32 operatic roles. But then came the overwhelming success of his musical films, and Eddy's operatic career receded into the background. He would always regret giving up opera, but he did record many operatic arias. He also learned to sing in French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and Yiddish. My collection includes many of his "foreign" love songs.

He was also fond of reviving old favorites, such as Joyce Kilmer's celebrated poem "Trees," which has become an enduring classic; "Oh Promise Me," written in the 1880s; and "The Rosary," written about the same time.

After World War II, operetta went out of fashion, along with the kind of innocent, romantic musical made so popular by Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. Eddy died in 1967.

June 29, 2001, is Nelson Eddy's birth anniversary. There won't be a great fanfare over it. We neglect or forget many of our best talents. But I'd like to record my gratitude to Nelson Eddy for all the pleasure he has given me over the years. I shall spend the day listening to all my favorites. I have more than 200 to choose from. It's going to be a great day!

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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